Margin: Nationals 5.9%*
Location: Eastern Regional, Victoria
* Nationals 12.0% at 28/6/2008 by-election
In a nutshell: Howard government minister Peter McGauran initiated the Rudd government’s first electoral test when he baled out a few months after the Howard government’s defeat, and it was an inauspicious start: the Nationals boosted their margin by 6.1 per cent, picking up double-digit swings in the Latrobe Valley. New member Darren Chester thus managed to continue an unbroken record in the seat for his party which goes back to its foundation in 1922.
Electorate analysis: The electorate of Gippsland has covered the far east of Victoria since federation, and has been in National/Country Party hands since the party was founded in 1922. It currently covers the Princes Highway towns of Morwell, Traralgon, Bairnsdale and Orbost, extending north to Maffra and Omeo. The Nationals’ hold appeared to be in serious jeopardy for the first time when the redistribution ahead of the 2004 election added Traralgon and strongly Labor-voting Morwell, a symptom of population decline that cut the margin from 8.0 per cent to 2.6 per cent. However, Howard government minister Peter McGauran, who had served as Science Minister and Agriculture Minister in the Howard government and member since 1983, was returned in 2004 with a 5.1 per cent swing and suffered a swing of just 1.8 per cent in 2007.
McGauran was the first member of the Howard government to initiate a by-election by heading for the parliamentary exit, which was held on 28 June 2008. This produced a three-way contest involving both coalition parties as well as Labor, which at the time provided a spur to talk of a merger. NSW Liberal Senator and former Howard numbers man Bill Heffernan went so far as to approach Craig Ingram, state independent member for Gippsland East, Craig Ingram, to spur things along by running as a “joint Liberal-Nationals candidate”.
The Nationals remained determined the seat should go to long-term local Darren Chester, the chief-of-staff to state party leader Peter Ryan. This marked Chester’s second attempt to enter politics, his first being an unsuccessful run against Craig Ingram at the 2002 state election. He also contested Senate preselection before the 2004 election against Peter McGauran’s brother Julian, who went on to defect to the Liberal Party in January 2006. Labor at first looked set to re-endorse their candidate from the 2007 election, East Gippsland councillor and two-time mayor Jane Rowe. However, Rowe stood aside in favour of Wellington Shire mayor Darren McCubbin, who had not previously been a party member, shortly before the preselection was due to be decided centrally by the party’s administrative committee. The Liberal candidate was Central Gippsland Health Service bureaucrat Rohan Fitzgerald, despite early suggestions Julian McGauran might seek the nod.
After a campaign dominated by the government’s “alcopops tax” and local concern over the prospect of an emissions trading scheme, the Nationals easily retained the seat with a sharp 6.1 per cent two-party swing against Labor, who suffered an 8.1 per cent slump on the primary vote. The swing was particuarly heavily concentrated in Traralgon, Morwell and the surrounding Latrobe City local government area. At 39.6 per cent the Nationals’ primary vote was only down 8.8 per cent in the face of competition from the Liberals, who polled 20.7 per cent. Undeterred, Darren McCubbin will again run for Labor at the coming election.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.